The Depth and Breadth of Language

Today I translated many things for the parents of the children I have been teaching English over the last ten days. I translated ‘chopsticks’, ‘onions’, ‘lamb’, I described the difference between a dumpling and a bun: typically, dumplings have filling and buns do not, or so I think and so I told my hosts.

I also described the difference between ‘stamp’ your feet and ‘stomp’ your feet, synonyms mostly, but stamp has many more synonyms that are not synonymous with stomp.

One of the most interesting things asked of me was to describe what the phrase ‘oh boy!’ means. I began, and almost immediately stopped, because if you think about that two word exclamation, there is quite a lot going on beneath the spoken surface.

Where should one begin when describing the cultural background of ‘oh boy!’?

Should I have explained how the phrase is really just a linguistic anachronism? An artifact of American baby boomer television and advertising? To do that I would also have to delve into the murky waters within which lies the entire history of American post-war economic success, I would have to say something like, “it was a phrase designed to communicate excitement, words for TV”; or is that just my distorted understanding, being a child of 1980s? Maybe people really did use ‘oh boy!’ all the time. I’m not a scholar of middle twentieth century culture.

Should I have explained to my hosts that ‘oh boy!’ is really just an expression of sarcasm, that, generally, people do not use the phrase in a serious manner. Typically ‘oh boy!’ is a way of communicating disappointment or phony excitement, something said when the expectations of two parties fail to meet in a substantial way.

Or should I instead have tried to explain that the use of ‘oh boy!’ is dependent upon the fickle demographics of age. An easy way for adults to convey excitement to 7 year old children more with facial and tonal indicators than with the words themselves.

I just went with, ‘its a way to show excitement,’ which may not have been the best alternative because now there is a possibility that these people will one day inadvertently come across as sarcastic. I don’t know, but this episode does illustrate the complexity of language, its multidimensionality if you will.

In this case, there were historical, human-developmental, cultural, and linguistic contexts, all of which affect the actual and implied meaning of ‘oh boy!’ Lateral, vertical, diagonal axes of meaning and connotation, all which demonstrate, to me, that to understand a language, not just the transliterated vocabulary, but to really possess a deep understanding of a foreign communication system, is to also understand the culture.¬†Cultural and linguistic fluency in another language is a window into an entirely different mode of thought, and thus, to some extent, provides access to a different reality, or at least an alternate framework for understanding reality.

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